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  • Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy
  • Martin Dimitrov
Claude Lefort, Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas of Democracy, trans. by Julian Bourg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. x + 237 pp. $35.00.

This translation gives Anglophone readers access to an important study originally published in French in 1999. Claude Lefort takes up several difficult questions in his book—why Communism arose, how it was maintained, and why it eventually collapsed. Answering these questions is not easy, and Lefort explicitly argues against simplistic explanations of the emergence, existence, and demise of Communism. He advocates complicating Communism—in other words, he rejects linear explanations and stresses the importance of multicausality for understanding the fate of Communism.

What was the basis of Communist rule? Lefort takes exception to some of the standard answers to this question. In contrast to studies that emphasize the ideological (Martin Malia) or illusory (François Furet) aspects of Communism, Lefort believes that we can understand Communist regimes only by examining the creation of a well-organized and totalizing Communist party. Individual citizens entered the party not because of a deep belief in Communism, but because the party gave them the best opportunity at furthering their life chances. Lefort argues that individuals engaged in "voluntary servitude" (a term borrowed from Étienne de La Boétie), which means that they voluntarily subjugated their will to that of the Communist party. Individuals "believed" in the party, but this belief was strategic rather than ideological—they joined the party and then allowed the party to direct their lives and worldviews.

Were lofty ideals like accountability and legality important to the maintenance of Communist regimes? In contrast to Raymond Aron, Lefort maintains that although the Soviet Union had elections and constitutions, both were used solely as instruments for the justification of the ultimate control of the Communist party over individuals. Lefort takes Hannah Arendt's interest in the role of law in totalitarian regimes a step further, arguing that laws in the Soviet Union assumed a perverse function of legitimating terror and repression, which were framed in legal terms. In short, Lefort believes that the basis of Communist rule was not ideological, but bureaucratic—the strong presence of a well-organized Communist party was instrumental in maintaining these regimes.

Was Communism reformable? Lefort does not think so. He identifies three problems that eventually brought about the collapse of Communism—the impossibility of maintaining centralized governance, the emergence of bureaucratic rivalries, and the inability of local administrators to force individuals to participate in productive activity. Although attempts were made to reform the system, they ultimately failed because true reform necessitated limiting the party's total domination and desire to control all levels of society. Given the impossibility of reform, the collapse of Communism was inevitable.

Lefort's book leaves unexamined three important questions. First, how did the Soviet Union evolve after Josif Stalin? Second, was there diversity within the Communist regimes? Third, why were some Communist regimes able to reform? [End Page 172]

Most of Lefort's study is focused on the classical Communist state: the Soviet Union under Stalin. Although he mentions other periods in Soviet history, he does not provide a detailed analysis of Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. His claims would have been strengthened (and, to use his terminology, complicated) if he had traced how his argument about the basis of Communist rule applies to the post-1956 evolution of the Soviet Union. In addition to those temporal extensions, Lefort's argument can also be tested geographically. Scholars in recent years have emphasized the existence of diverse pathways for the emergence and demise of Communist regimes, and it would have been interesting if Lefort had discussed whether all the East European Communist regimes were maintained in similar ways and whether their collapse was attributable to the same factors that, in his view, explain the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The even more challenging issue that Lefort should have discussed concerns the ability of some Communist regimes to reform successfully and to avert collapse. China demonstrates that reform of Communism, though exceedingly difficult, is possible. After Deng Xiaoping ushered in the Reform and Openness era in 1978...


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